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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Temperatures hit 105 degrees as thousands of Elvis Presley fans gathered on Wednesday for a graveside procession to mark Thursday’s 30th anniversary of his dying. The heat led to the death of a fan from New Jersey, a 67-year-old woman.
The woman was found dead Wednesday afternoon inside a trailer at a Graceland campground. She had chronic health problems, but the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office said the heat contributed to her death. The Memphis Fire Department said it also treated at least six people overcome by heat, including an 8-year-old boy who was hospitalized.
Despite the promise of another furnace-like day, some fans began lining up for the candlelight vigil early in the morning, setting up umbrellas and folding chairs on the sidewalk along four-lane Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Mary Powell of Salinas, Kan., said she took up her post at 5 a.m. to be sure to get near the front of the line. “A lot of people would say I’m crazy, but this has to do with my love for Elvis. He did so much for his fans,” Powell said.
The legendary entertainer, acclaimed as The King, died Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42 from heart disease worsened by drug abuse.
The candlelight vigil was to begin at 9:30 p.m. EDT and run through the night, with thousands of fans joining the procession past Presley’s grave, located in a small garden beside Graceland, Presley’s former home.
Several hundred people had lined up by late afternoon along the stone fence in front of Graceland.
Powell said she was with a small group of friends who cooperated in holding their places in line to allow periodic breaks to visit Graceland’s air-conditioned visitors center and souvenir shops.
“We’re not stupid. We know we should take our time-outs and go cool down,” she said. “We take care of ourselves.”
Temperatures in Memphis have topped 100 degrees for six days straight and the National Weather Service has advised residents to limit outdoor activities. Seven deaths in the Memphis area have been linked to the heat wave.
The vigil is the most popular and solemn anniversary event in a weeklong string of concerts, dances, movie screenings and other festivities put on by Graceland.
No one keeps exact figures, but the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated up to 75,000 people would be drawn to town for the anniversary week.
Graceland draws almost 600,000 visitors a year and up to 40,000 file through the three-story white-columned house during Elvis Tribute Week.
Fans preparing for the vigil filled the souvenir shops of Graceland’s sprawling tourist complex. Elvis impersonators, with karaoke accompaniment, put on a daylong show for fans packed into a large tent in a shopping center parking lot.
Workers from a Memphis hospital passed out free bottles of water and fans lining up for the vigil could take breaks to stand for a few moments in a misting tent dubbed “Kentucky Rain” after one of Presley’s songs.
Abby Reeves of North Augusta, S.C., said she expected Memphis to be hot, but not quite so hot.
“We had some family here last year and they said it was only in the 90s,” Reeves said.
When Presley died his finances were in sad shape. Led by ex-wife Priscilla Presley, the estate formed Elvis Presley Enterprises, opened Graceland to the public in 1982 and solidified the legal rights to make money on Elvis’ name and image.
Last year, Graceland took in $27 million in revenue, and the overall Elvis business brings in more than $40 million a year. That made him the second-highest grossing dead celebrity in 2006, behind only Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, according to Forbes magazine.
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